What if you had 15 minutes’ notice to leave your home, and you didn’t know when you’d be coming back — or what shape your home would be when you did?
Could you find your key documents, medications, ID, devices, cables? Sturdy shoes, suitable clothing, stuff to comfort your kids and control your pets? Mementos, valuables, things you couldn’t live without? While trying to stay calm, keep your family calm, and figure out what’s going on?
I ponder this, sometimes, as an academic exercise: when I’m watching horrific tornado footage, or wondering how far inland a tropical storm is going to come. I’ve lived on a hurricane coast (Texas) and in a tornado alley (Minnesota), and I thought regularly about preparedness while I lived there. But now I live mostly in Atlanta, and sometimes in inland Maine, and my rare thoughts about preparedness extend mostly to keeping documents in a fireproof safe and making sure the flashlights scattered around the house have good batteries.
Last night I learned how shortsighted that was. TL;DR: All’s well, my house didn’t burn down, and I got a useful reminder about how you can be taken by surprise.
To set the scene: There was a massive storm system set to sweep through the Midwest and East Coast Thursday, but the southernmost edge was forecast to dip no lower than North Carolina. So it was a surprise — to everyone I know, judging by social media — when the sky turned black and the trees started thrashing sometime after 7 p.m. In Atlanta, reputedly the most-forested city in the lower 48, trees coming down in storms is the biggest weather unpredictable. You learn to keep dead branches trimmed, and you develop the habit of keeping an eye on older trees and calculating which way they might fall.
But none did, and after an hour the downpour lessened and the wind muted to a whine. About that time, my husband came in from a work event. I got up to greet him and took a peek out the door. The sky was still light and it looked the way I expected: clouds scudding by, lightning in the distance. Then a sparkle that wasn’t lightning caught the edge of my vision, and I looked up.
In my neighbor’s front garden, 15 feet away, a slender water oak about 40 feet high had split — but the split part, about 20 feet long, hadn’t fallen to the ground. One end was still attached to the tree; the other was lying across the terminals of the power pole between our houses. Where it had contact with the terminals, something was arcing and sparking; and where it was arcing, and where it had split with the trunk, the tree was starting to smoke.
We called 911, called the power company, moved our cars down the street, called our neighbors to tell them not to come out of their houses. A police cruiser and then a fire truck showed up very quickly, checked in with us and then blocked traffic; that was all they could do until a power-company crew showed up to turn off the pole. And then the tree — soaking wet and full of green leaves — burst into flames.
Quite suddenly, things were complicated. Embers were drifting out of the fire. The electrical line from the pole was bowing under the weight of the tree section’s crown. If the fire spread to a house, the fire company would be unable to use hoses unless the power was cut; and if the line broke, and landed in the rain on a soaking wet street, things could get very hazardous indeed.
We decided to get ready to go, just in case. We got out our cat’s carry-box, and then located the cat and stashed her in a room where there was no heavy furniture to hide under. We plugged in our phones to charge up, turned off the desktops and unplugged them, checked our laptop bags and tablets, and then tried to figure what we’d need if we had to leave in the next 10 minutes for a couple of days, or longer. We were luckier than most: We both travel a lot, so our toilet kits and cables stay packed and we keep scans of IDs and credit cards where we can get to them remotely; and our ultimate identity-proving papers — passports, marriage license, citizenship papers — were already in a safe that wouldn’t melt unless the high-tension line landed right on it.
We packed wallets, shirts, spare jeans, flashlights, a few small valuables. I threw some cans of cat food and a spoon and saucers in a Ziploc. We debated trying to rescue other things, and then realized it wasn’t safe to get to the cars: The walk to the street went right under the stretched electrical line. We put the bags by a door, checked on the cat again, moved the phones where we could yank them at a run, and settled down to wait.
After about 30 minutes, the tree section burned through, tipped up, and thudded to the ground in a fountain of sparks. The line it was snagged on twanged, but held. With the contact broken, the fire subsided, steaming away in the remaining rain. After an hour, the fire crew felt it was safe to leave; on the way, they told us we’d slid down the triage list, from an emergency to one of many, many trees-on-lines, and the power company would show up when they could. We checked with the cops, and then went to bed. We left the bags by the door, just in case.
This morning, I checked their contents. To be honest, I give myself a C. I grabbed the cat’s food and dishes, but didn’t think to take the medication I give her twice a day. I took all the devices that access my stuff in the cloud, but didn’t recall that I keep some things out of the cloud for security; I should have taken the external back-up that sits on my desk. And, if things went very bad, I might have had a hard time dealing with the details; I relied on having web-based banking, but I didn’t think to take the phone or account numbers for any of the utilities. And I committed those fails despite minimal things to distract me: my spouse (aviation engineer) and I (epidemics and disasters journalist, pilot) are pretty accustomed to emergencies; we had only one pet to wrangle; and we didn’t have any small children or mobility-challenged elders to keep calm. And, most fortunate of all, we ended up not having to run.
So, this is a plea, or at least a piece of unsolicited advice: Spare a thought now for what you’ll do on the kind of evening I had. Especially think what might go in your “go bag” — the stuff you’ll need when you need to leave quickly — and consider going ahead and packing one. Mike Coston, who thinks about such issues a lot — he’s not only an emerging-diseases blogger, but also an emergency medical technician and a Florida resident — calls it a BOB, for “bug-out bag,” and has great resources on his blog about how to prepare for hours, days and weeks when things go bad. If it seems overkill to keep a bag packed, or you live somewhere where there’s no storage space, then consider making a “go list,” of what you would need when it’s time to bolt. Print it out — what if it’s in your desktop and the power fails? — and put it in a location that is easy to remember. Spare yourself the burden of making decisions when your system is flooded with adrenaline and you’re not sure what to do first.
It’s easy to think advice like this is overly dramatic; that if you don’t live on a storm coast or in a tornado alley, you’re not at this kind of risk. People in Ohio didn’t think that either, until last year’s derecho came out of nowhere; neither did people on the Jersey shore when Hurricane Sandy came through. I certainly didn’t expect a flaming tree and a flailing power line to be suspended above my head on a summer evening. Having been in a crisis where it seemed that minutes matter, I can appreciate how much smarter it would have been to think things through when I had more time.
Update: Mike reminded me, via a pointer within a kind post on his blog, that he had a bad tree experience too.